REVIEW: Batman Live: Arena World Tour

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The Batman Live: Arena World Tour is making its way through North America. It is said by some that Batman makes everything better…But does that include the areas of performance art and theatre? The show promises a thrilling evening of family entertainment with martial arts, pyrotechnics, acrobatics, and more, but is it an event that a jaded comic book fan will enjoy? Major Spoilers draws back the curtain on BATMAN LIVE…

INTRODUCTION (and Spoiler Warning!)

Theatre has been a longtime passion of mine. I was involved with many productions in my youth and throughout my college years, and now as a working stiff I still make plenty of time to enjoy all types of live entertainment. Batman Live is a unique blend of variety show and theatrical play. In this review, I’ll run through the acts that it contains as well as the story it tells, and attempt to hit on all the important aspects of the production. If you are planning on seeing the show and want to be surprised by what you see, please skip down to my final thoughts.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: THIRTY MINUTES TO SHOWTIME

For my viewing of the show, I convinced my beleaguered wife to join me for the presentation at Wichita’s Intrust Bank Arena. Though we have a two-year-old daughter, we opted to leave her at home with grandma, which proved to be a wise choice. She was definitely below the target demographic for the show, as will be discussed later. After buying my souvenir program and stepping into the arena proper, I was instantly drawn to the set. The arena floor was covered in an almost rectangular stage that protruded out into the audience. Behind this domino-shaped stage was a gigantic jumbotron (think an IMAX screen) shaped like an enormous bat. The stage was littered with miniature models of Gotham landmarks, including Crime Alley, Arkham Asylum, GCPD, and more, while the Bat-screen showed an animated night sky of Gotham. Skyscrapers twinkled, blimps floated by, and searchlights scanned the clouds as police sirens wailed in the distance. This set-up did a great job of creating a tone for the production, but I still wasn’t quite sure what I was about to see.

ACT I

Suddenly, music fills the arena, and the buildings begin to be removed from stage while police scanners and radio banter about Batman and his villains. All goes black, except for one small building…the theater where Bruce’s parents are gunned down. Sure enough, the audience is given a quick moment to see the most formative event in Batman’s life, as actors portraying young Bruce and his parents along with Joe Chill take the stage. This short scene establishes two important things: First, Thomas and Martha Wayne are killed off stage. This is a family-friendly show, as advertised, and this moment quickly reinforces that we are seeing a PG-rated show. Secondly, it establishes the use of the Bat-screen for more than just a backdrop. In a clever use of technology, the screen flashes through pieces of events in comic-book panel style, creating an easy way for the audience to be filled in on events that the actors cannot portray. The Bat-screen will also be used as a backdrop later in the show, but already we are told that this special effect is an important part of the show.

We immediately cut to an adult Bruce Wayne chatting with Commissioner Gordon, and the Bat-screen shifts to a familiar locale for Gotham City fans…Haly’s Traveling Circus. It isn’t long before the Grayson’s appear, and the plot will instantly be familiar to Bat-fans…this production is a retelling of the origin of Robin. Sure enough, familiar character beats are hit. Gangster Tony Zucco makes a threat that Dick Grayson’s dad ignores, and we’re immediately thrust into the circus proper.

The Haly’s Circus segment gives the audience its first true bit of action. There are some fun circus acts that are given a lot of time here, including gymnasts, acrobats, juggling, clowns, and the two Grayson parents on a trapeze. While the group of seven-year-olds in front of me were getting restless (“Where’s Batman?” they would constantly say while tugging on their mother’s sleeve), this segment was entertaining if not spectacular. Dick Grayson, who reminded me a lot of Marty McFly in this portrayal, did a great job of describing the events and reacting to the eventual demise of his parents due to the sabotaged trapeze. The scene concludes as Commissioner Gordon sticks Dick with Bruce.

Dick is brought back to Wayne Manor where, for a minute or two, there is dialogue to advance the plot. Some nice acting is here from Dick Grayson especially, but also Bruce Wayne and the newly-introduced Alfred. Suddenly, the Bat-signal is flashed on the Bat-screen and the audience is transported to our next locale, the Gotham Museum of Art, where Catwoman is introduced as our first big-name supervillain.

Unfortunately, this scene falls a little flat. Catwoman descends in a slinky manner from the ceiling, which is great, and Batman himself finally appears, gliding down from the rafters. However, for the next ten minutes, the duo delivers dialogue while wire-fighting across the stage. I have no problem with wire-work…Batman’s initial glide onto the set was a really cool iconic moment from the show…but the problem with wire-work is that it can be very slow. Batman and Catwoman leap back and forth, barely getting into each other’s reach, while flipping and twirling lazily. Meanwhile, the Bat-screen rapidly shows movement from rooftop to rooftop, trying it’s best to simulate a high-speed chase. The problem with this scene is that the wire-work in no way comes close to making a frenetic chase scene. It was not the best way to excite the crowd for the action to come. Another great comment from the little boy in front of me tells the story of this scene…”Mommy, I didn’t know Catwoman could fly!”

From this scene, the audience makes its way to the Iceberg Lounge, where the Penguin parties down and time is given for another short acrobatics show. In addition to dancers, we have acrobats descending from the ceiling in hoops and an athlete performing a dance on the hanging ribbons, which she unfortunately struggled with. About this time I started wondering about the cast of performers. It didn’t seem as though they hired acrobats who had specialties in one area, but rather hired performers who had some capability in several areas. All of the acts were good, but none were gasp-inducing…They were definitely above circus quality, but below what one would find at Cirque du Soleil, for example.

After the gymnasts finished, Penguin is joined on stage by villains in rapid succession, including Catwoman, Two-Face, and Riddler, all of whom were clearly having a great deal of fun with their roles. Some familiarity with the characters might have been helpful for my wife, who was trying to figure out who everyone was, but I loved every minute of the villains chewing the scenery. Batman suddenly bursts into the room on the hunt for the killer of Dick’s parents, and after a brief scuffle, learns that the Joker put Zucco up to the job.

Our next scene brings us back to Haly’s Circus as Dick returns, looking for answers. However, his troupe is no longer there…rather, the Joker has taken over! Villainous clowns dance across the stage as Harley Quinn makes a spectacular entrance. The actress steals the show in every scene as she nails perfectly Harley’s voice, mannerisms, and charm. The Joker, too, does a fantastic job of being certifiably insane, frightening, and silly all at the same time. Joker and Harley capture Dick to hold for ransom, and the first act ends.

INTERMISSION: IMPRESSIONS SO FAR

After a quick first act (clocking in at 45 minutes) I had the chance to sit back and think about the show so far.

The costumes had been excellent. In theatre, costumes have to be created in such a way so that people sitting far from the stage can still identify the characters and emotions. Great job here!

The acting and choreography had been good to great. The wire-fighting had probably not functioned as the director envisioned…too much floating slowly through the air…but the characters had done a great job of sticking to their parts and reveling in their roles. This play definitely gives a comic book feel. It is not campy or cheesy like the Schumacher films or the Adam West TV show, but it is not dark and moody like modern Nolan-Batman either.

The sets and props are slim so far, but they don’t need to be too complex for this show. The Bat-screen does an awesome job of establishing the scenes, transitioning from location to location, and even interacts nicely with the cast. It is definitely a cool addition.
The variety acts had been good. I knew from reading about the show that some circus-style acts would be included, and the ones seen so far had all been of good quality. Again, nothing to make you leave your jaw on the floor, but entertaining nonetheless.

ACT II

The lights dim and music clearly based on Danny Elfman’s film scores fills the arena. The show continues right where it left off, with Joker and Harley Quinn tormenting Dick Grayson as a gaggle of clownish acrobat/thugs look on. The Joker himself takes us through the next variety act…a magic show! Reinforcing the “family-friendly” theme, the Joker performs some of vaudeville’s oldest (yet classic) tricks, such as making Harley disappear from an exploding box and the old knife-through-the-box-with-a-lady-in-it act. Joker’s Vegas aspirations are dashed when Batman appears and takes out the baddies. While your opinion of magic may vary, the fight scene here is the best so far, as Batman for the first time is unencumbered by wires. Instead, he slowly plows through the clowns, fighting like a tank, until freeing Dick. The Joker escapes, but Harley is carted off to Arkham by Gordon and the GCPD.

Our next scene takes us to the aftermath of the fight, back at Wayne Manor. Here, Bruce spills the beans on his dual identity and escorts Dick to the Batcave. Again, the Bat-screen does a great job of conveying motion as the two actors are lowered via elevator into the depths of the cave, ending up in a dank and murky area yet surrounded by high-tech equipment. Alfred appears, convinces Bruce to train the boy, and the scene ends.

The stage fades in on the villains of the show, Riddler, Catwoman, Penguin, and Two-Face, stuck in the courtyard of Arkham Asylum. After a bit of dialogue and some explosions, the Joker appears, announcing his takeover of the Asylum! So far, the plot has moved quickly and had a lot more action than the first act, and has contained a lot of special effects to boot! Things have definitely gotten more interesting.

Back at the Bat-Cave, Dick’s training is nearing completion and he is ready to seek revenge on the Joker for the murder of his parents. The big lesson of Robin’s origin, vengeance vs. justice, is the topic of discussion which I appreciated as it’s such a key part of Robin’s beginnings. But the discussion doesn’t last forever, as Batman takes a moment to show off the Batmobile. In this show, the Batmobile is about the size of a formula one racer. It may be small, but it looks pretty, and has a couple of moments to drive around on stage, show off some sparkly lights and even shoot off a few “defensive flares.” But in the middle of this posturing, an emergency call comes in, and Batman must attempt to wrest control of Arkham Asylum back from the Joker. Robin is left in the cave with Alfred, who gives Dick his brand-new Robin costume.

There is a great tonal shift upon Batman’s arrival at Arkham. The set is decorated with dead bodies bound, gagged, and swinging from chains. It’s extremely creepy.

We also get introduced to two more villains…a Scarecrow who looks a little silly, and a Poison Ivy who looks incredibly gorgeous in her leafy costume. The villains, now teamed together, make short work of Batman. But hark! Robin zips in from above in heroic fashion, and Catwoman switches to the heroes’ side. Together, the three take on the combined forces of evil in a climatic martial arts display. Batman is still rather slow and immobile thanks to his suit, but Robin especially does some fantastic fighting. Catwoman also gets a great moment in the spotlight and shows off her prowess with a bullwhip. It’s an incredibly satisfying scene.

The Joker, of course, is too crafty to engage in fisticuffs. He attempts to make an escape in a gigantic hot-air balloon (another of the shows more memorable moments) but is thwarted in quite explosive fashion. The heroes high-five, Batman accepts his new sidekick, and everyone goes home happy.

SPOILER-FREE CONCLUSION

What’s always been interesting to me about Batman is that, perhaps more than any other superhero, Batman is versatile enough to be dark, silly, adult, or friendly for kids. At times, Batman Live is all of those things, but it primarily spends its time firmly in the family-friendly category. This approach works very well because the performers are dedicated to the concept and production 100%. The performers really shine no matter their role, but Joker, Harley Quinn, and Robin seem to shine the most. Though sometimes silly, the show never insults the intelligence of the audience. It treats the source material with dignity while at the same time having fun with the premise of a living and breathing Gotham City. Batman Live’s main goal is to entertain the audience, and it never fails in that regard. The only negatives I have are that the two acts were a bit unbalanced…The second act is definitely where the action, drama, and excitement are. Batman only appears in two scenes in the first half, and one of those scenes is quite oddly paced.

This show is perfect for families with fans of comic books, adventure stories, or live spectacles. There are so many memorable moments in this show, and the audience is left waiting to see what (or who) comes next. On the technical side, the show is chock-full of special effects, from pyrotechnics to the Batmobile to the ever-present, creatively used Bat-screen. The plot is probably too much for the youngest group…I’d say around five would probably be the best starting age, as some scenes won’t hold a small child’s attention…but there’s a lot for both young boys and girls to enjoy. This show is an action-packed treat for families!

If Batman Live is coming to your town, it’s a must for family entertainment. If you have no problem with a more cartoonish or comic book-styled Batman you’ll love the show, family or not. But, if you prefer the adult-themed Batman, stick with the Nolan movies.

Rating: ★★★★½

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